The Chandler family owns a boat, a beautiful one with a large deck perfect for fishing, and they like taking it out on the bay just south of their tiny Massachusetts town. Once out on the water, as seagulls take flight around them and colorful waterfront property beckons from rocky cliffs, grown brothers Joe and Lee love to horse around with Joe's son Patrick, teaching him how to fish, and cautioning him about the schools of sharks swimming just under the water's surface. Sharks always travel in schools, don't you know, Patrick?
This gorgeous opening to Manchester by the Sea is shot in wide lens from a vantage that captures the full majesty of the shoreline as the Chandler men chart a course around it. As it happens, there are many sharks swimming under the surface of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's remarkable drama, sharks that take the form of past trauma or present grief, and they will bite at this family early and often. We watch as these characters continue merely to live, day by day, to the best of their abilities, and deep waves of sadness, joy, and unapologetic New England sarcasm crest against their vessel. Lonergan's film reveals itself as a wellspring of urgently needed compassion and grace.
Casey Affleck, in a role that he imbues with haunting, halting sadness, is Lee Chandler, a janitor who lives in a basement in Boston. He used to live near his brother in the titular town, where he doted on his nephew, drank heavily, and then would come home to wife Randi (Michelle Williams, who leaves a searing impression with limited screen time) and three kids of his own.
A good deal has changed in the intervening years, and we gradually fill in the blanks once Lee is summoned back to Manchester-by-the-Sea after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks). Patrick is now a confident yet brittle teenager (a pithy and secretly heartbreaking Lucas Hedges). But once Lee, struggling to keep his volcanic temperament just barely in check while processing his grief, gets to look over his brother's will, he's shocked to discover that Joe has left him the house and placed Patrick under his care.
"I don't understand," Lee stutters. He can't be his nephew's guardian. He can't handle this responsibility. He can't move back to the place where he spent so many years, because of the unspeakable tragedy he caused long ago that he hasn't been able to atone for yet. Besides, Joe, who had been suffering from congestive heart failure, pulled a beyond-the-grave switcheroo without consulting him.
But there's no one else; Patrick's mother, who was a mentally unstable alcoholic for many years, is out of the picture. There's funeral business to attend to. And Patrick needs someone to drive him between hockey practice, band practice, and his two girlfriends—"they don't know about each other," he says offhandedly—so that seems to settle things.
Perhaps this sounds like a family weepie of the kind we've seen many times before. In fact, in the hours after the movie ends, you may find yourself struggling to remember what made it so moving, in so many different ways. Most of its dialogue is plainspoken, and characters put off or rush through the big, emotional moments, instead focusing their energies on boat motors, driving logistics, and the small details of everyday life.
Yet this scripting approach by Lonergan, combined with judicious editing choices by Jennifer Lame that drive unspoken emotions in-between every cut, makes the moments that count that much more unforgettable. An argument between Lee and Patrick over having the morgue put Joe's body in a freezer until gravediggers can penetrate the spring thaw reaches its apex many scenes later when Patrick opens his own freezer and collapses, sobbing, surrounded by piles of frosty meat.
The film is anchored with profound performances. Affleck holsters tremendous pain in his surliness, and in the deliberate way he observes people trying to interact with him without returning the favor, as though he's just waiting for everyone in the world to go away. Hedges is the movie's electricity, cutting deep with wry jokes and beyond-his-years assertiveness. A line from him will turn a scene on a dime from tearful to hilarious, and then onward to a kind of resilience. It would have been nice to see the female characters fleshed out more than their brief appearances allow, but that's mostly because it's unfair for a setting this finely realized to be spared even one ounce of added detail. Throughout, composer Lesley Barber's score mixes an undercurrent of piano, the harsh chops of violins, and the occasional heavenly chorale elevating these struggles to something like spiritual revelations.
Lonergan, who is also a prolific playwright, has now made three films as a writer-director, all character-based dramas with dialogue that functions like behavioral psychology. He's well-regarded in tiny, filmy circles for 2000's You Can Count on Me, which was nominated for Oscars, and 2011's Margaret, a great movie about a young woman finding herself in New York. But almost no one saw Margaret due to a brutal, years-long editing process and legal battles with financiers that kept it from theaters—given those circumstances, it's a miracle we have another offering from Lonergan at all.
Like Margaret, Manchester is a sprawling work that revels in its messiness, because being uncertain and uncomfortable and not knowing whether to laugh or cry when something happens is the real grist of humanity. One of the film's final lines is "Do we have to talk about this now?" But that's what Manchester captures so beautifully about life: it's a series of difficult conversations we'd rather avoid, about death and family and responsibility, and the ones that matter are with the people we love, or once loved, or will learn to love someday. Sharks be damned, this film says: We're leaving port anyway.